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How Hurricane Maria Could Change Puerto Rico’s Political Future

The storm has caused untold devastation. But it might also be an impetus for long-overdue change.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the windowless backroom kitchen of the Loisaida community and arts center in Lower Manhattan, Aris Mejías cradles a plastic ziplock with the last of the dark-roast coffee she brought back from her native Puerto Rico. “It’s probably extinct,” she says. “Ay Díos, I think I’m gonna cry.” Mejías’s eyes are red and sunken. Neither she nor Isabel Gandía has slept much since Hurricane Maria tore through the southeast Caribbean in late September. They’ve been too busy coordinating a donation drive to bring emergency aid to Puerto Rico. At 3:30 in the afternoon, Gandía is only just getting around to breakfast.

“The hurricane happened and we were watching like spectators,” says Gandía, who was in Mayagüez, on the island’s devastated western coast, during Hurricane Irma but tracked Maria from her New York apartment. “I went crazy immediately, within hours. What were we going to do?” As the swirling chaos of Maria settled into the acute humanitarian disaster of its aftermath, millions of Puerto Ricans throughout the U.S. diaspora asked themselves that same desperate question. They’ve come up with answers at once urgent and aspirational, commanding the attention of a distracted country, compensating for the failings of a complacent White House, and raising the possibility that the crisis of day-to-day life on the island will provide the impetus to resolve the various crises that preceded and exacerbated it.

“Every Puerto Rican that I’ve met hugs you, kisses you, asks you for your family, and they’re working their asses off,” says Mejías. “Activism, finally.”

The United States acquired Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War of 1898. As U.S. citizens, its residents enjoy equal rights under the Constitution but lack voting representation in Congress. Its leaders, while elected, do not exercise autonomy over its budget and laws. “Unincorporated territory” is the operative term, a tortured, extra-constitutional construct that speaks to the profound ambivalence of a holding whose existence goes overlooked even in critiques of an informal American empire. Puerto Rico, the Supreme Court reasoned, is “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense.”

Now more than ever, the United States has been forced to reckon with its peculiar relationship to the island. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, about half the country doesn’t know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Libertad Guerra, the director of the Loisaida center, says Hurricane María was “the atmospheric manifestation of a colonial crisis,” a chance, “not for Americans to recognize us as U.S. citizens, which we already are. It’s really for the rest of the world to look and see what U.S. citizenship means.”

“This moment has really revealed how foreign Puerto Rico is to the U.S. psyche,” says Rutgers University sociologist Zaire Dinzey-Flores, who was only able to reach her mother last week. But separated though it is by “big water, ocean water,” as President Donald Trump helpfully reminded, Puerto Rico has never been an island unto itself. “It’s intimately tied to what we see here,” says Dinzey-Flores.

Dinzey-Flores’s scholarship focuses on housing trends in both Puerto Rico and New York City, examining shared cycles of “displacement, renewal, and development.” Puerto Rico’s infrastructure may indeed have been “broken” before Hurricane Maria, as Trump has emphasized. But during the mid-twentieth century, the island was a focal point of federal housing development and highway construction, a “social laboratory for all of these investments that would become a model for the developing world,” Dinzey-Flores says.

The transition from New Deal liberalism to the free market consensus of subsequent decades brought a noted decay in public housing and the communities it supported. Wall Street speculators dragged public utilities like Prepa, which is responsible for Puerto Rico’s obliterated power grid, into a self-fulfilling spiral of bad service, exorbitant pricing, and privatization. Leading pharmaceutical manufacturers made billions through special federal tax exemptions for Puerto Rico, but left the island to absorb the costs of infrastructure repairs and maintenance, often abandoning their operations entirely once their privileges expired or a better deal opened up.

The decline of the pharmaceutical industry is just one factor that has contributed to Puerto Rico’s astronomical poverty rates. Hector Figueroa, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, says Puerto Rico has become a different kind of laboratory, this time for “the neoliberal, pro-corporate, austerity policies that are being imposed all around the country.”

Puerto Rico, though not a state, has been barred from bankruptcy protections on its $74 billion outstanding bond debt and $49 billion pending pension commitments. With that in mind, Congress in 2016 passed PROMESA (an acronym that translates to “promise” in Spanish), establishing a financial oversight board to manage the island’s government on behalf of predatory debtholders. The board has thus far performed its expected function, enforcing a total assault on Puerto Rico’s economy and precarious public welfare institutions.

Through a coalition he helped bring together last year, Vamos4PR, Figueroa had been planning simultaneous demonstrations in New York and cities across the Puerto Rican diaspora to coincide with an October 4 debt hearing. That hearing has been postponed indefinitely, but Figueroa intends for the rally to go ahead as scheduled. “It is incumbent on us to educate the American people,” he says. “It’s almost like there is a historical amnesia and a political amnesia as to what Puerto Rico is, all of the sudden they have to rediscover that this nation exists within the power of the U.S.”

The challenge, as Figueroa sees it, is the same one facing all grassroots movements of the left in the Trump era: figuring out how to channel outrage at an odious president into a specific policy program, and how to consolidate general engagement with an issue into meaningful political power. “What happens going forward?” asks New York Congressman José Serrano, a Puerto Rican native and the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “Right now, people are concentrating on helping Puerto Rico, and there’s a lot of good will on that issue. But even in Puerto Rico they’re starting to talk about status now.”

Within Congress, Serrano senses a creeping acceptance that “there isn’t such thing as an enhanced commonwealth.” But he can’t say whether that will result in statehood, independence, or a dubious half-measure. Debt relief is “always on the table,” he says, but hasn’t been mentioned in substantive discussion between members.

Figueroa thinks Maria presents an opportunity to move the politics in a fairer direction. The Trump administration’s belated decision to temporarily waive the Jones Act, an outdated piece of protectionist trade legislation that has harmed Puerto Rico’s economy for decades, is an early sign that pressure is having an effect. Furthermore, recent migration patterns from the island have shifted toward politically strategic regions like Texas and central Florida. The Trump administration can’t keep Puerto Ricans out with a wall or travel ban, and the thought of 3.5 million potential climate refugees arriving on the mainland may be enough to inspire action from otherwise reluctant Republicans.

“One of the things that gives me hope,” says Figueroa, “despite the fact that I haven’t been able to contact my father and members of my family … has been the response coming from many sectors. Can it be sustained? I think it can be.”

Mejías and Gandía met in the early 2000s at the Universidad de Puerto Rico Río Piedras, which has been a hotbed of student opposition to austerity on the island and draconian education cuts in particular. Careers in theater and film lured them away from the island—Mejías is an award-winning actress; Gandía recently finished a season as a set costumer on the NBC cop drama Shades of Blue—and they’ve each endured the familiar resentments that accompanied their decision to leave. The hurricane, says Mejías, has erased those divisions, at least for now. “We’re all working for one goal.... It’s like nos hemos vuelto un país.” It’s like we’ve become a country.

Along with Yaraní del Valle Piñero, they launched Eco Kit, a selected donation list designed to “mitigate the ecological hazards of the many relief donations that will end up as garbage.” The idea started when they noticed groups collecting batteries to send to an island that has long suffered environmental degradation from noncompliant battery smelting, among other toxic-waste mismanagement. But it was also informed by years spent observing the travesty of top-down recovery in nearby Haiti. “They don’t take into account that we’re an island,” Mejías says of the International Red Cross. “They don’t take into account our infrastructure. They don’t take into account humidity…. They don’t take into account geography—and in our particular case, that we’re a colony.”

Mejías is working to distribute a network of ham radio equipment and signal repeaters across Puerto Rico, so that “we can start hearing and listening to what’s going on in the countryside.” Another priority is delivering kits to “food brigades,” spontaneous collectives that have begun clearing debris and reviving the island’s deracinated agrarian sector, one communal farm at a time.

The amount of work to be done is staggering. “It’s like living in another place,” says Xiomara Caro. Six-hour lines for ice. Ten-hour lines for gas. Caro, an organizer with the U.S. nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy, was in San Juan when the storm landed. But it wasn’t until she ventured outside the relative comfort of the city that she realized how terrible the destruction had been. “Seeing all those trees, completely bare, and a dark sky.... It felt for a moment like we were naked, naked for the whole world to see what was going on here. Even trees don’t cover poor neighborhoods anymore.”

Disaster has also clarified certain aspects of daily life and struggle, reduced them to their essentials. As soon as the winds let up, it was average Puerto Ricans out cleaning the streets, not soldiers or government employees. “People are taking on roles without being told to,” she says. The other day, Caro went to a university soup kitchen in Caguas that has repurposed itself as a “mutual support center,” offering whatever food, songs, and services its fluctuating community has to offer. Activists often talk about “holding space.” In Puerto Rico, even experienced organizers like Caro are relearning what that means.

“We are depending on each other for everything,” she says. “The strength of it is more visible. If I eat, it’s because everyone eats. If we survive, we’re gonna survive together.” That has the makings of an ideology, and people who wouldn’t necessarily share that worldview under ordinary circumstances are “coming to see it as the way to a better life. And let’s face it, most of us didn’t have that life.” Maria may have been partly a man-made disaster, but there’s some comfort in that. Things that are made can be unmade.